Patience (The Secret to All Things Running)

You know those moments when you’re so present, that you feel like you’re watching yourself from an outside perspective? Like you’re moving in slow motion or can’t for the life of you remember what happened during a run or race? It just flew by in a blur?

It’s called “flow” or “the Zone” and it’s this magical state you can unlock where time slows down and even though you’re giving 100%, you aren’t focused on the pain and discomfort, how much further you have to go, or what is to come, you’re present and able to transcend boundaries and perform at your highest ability.

I used to think that getting into the zone only happened on a lucky day. That if I could trick myself into having fun instead of trusting the work I’d put in, I’d be able to forget my fears or doubts and unlock that magical state during a goal race or particularly tough workout.

When I first started chasing scary, seemingly impossible time goals like breaking 2 hours in the half or showing up to a track for a track workout, I’d work myself into a frenzy. I’d panic and convince myself that I was bound to crash and burn (I didn’t have prior successes to fall back on) and I thought I could save myself the inevitable embarrassment, frustration, discomfort and heartache that came when I proved to myself that I wasn’t capable of doing whatever it is I was trying to do.

I’m not a naturally talented runner. I’d argue that I’m a pretty mediocre runner. But despite the fact that I’m Queen of the struggle runners, I love running and chasing impossible goals. I love pushing back on my pre-defined limits and proving myself wrong time and time and time again. I love the fear and the failures that pile up when you step outside of your comfort zone.

It wasn’t until I started running and chasing goals that felt impossible that I started to see all the ways in which I was holding myself back. I was so afraid of failing or not being perfect, I was stopping myself from taking risks both in my personal life and professional life. I cared way, WAY too much about what other people thought about me and I wasn’t focusing on what I could do to take steps towards making my scary goals a reality. I just focused on how crazy the goal itself was and why I was doomed to fail.

I’ve been chasing my impossible, a goal that I’ve failed to make happen for three years now. (Only once did I come kind of close.) And despite the fact that I keep getting further and further from my time goal (Yes, you read that correctly. With every attempt, I’ve gotten further and further from my time goal. #Blessed), I don’t think I’ve ever felt more confident or excited to chase my impossible again.

This weekend, I ran my first race since the New York City Marathon last November. It’s been five months since I’ve chased my personal best and it was during this small 4-mile race in Central Park that I realized how far I’ve come.

I didn’t even intend on racing. The day before the race, I did 8 miles of track work and a boxing class. (It was my first boxing class and I’m 67% sure that I don’t like boxing. So hard. So much yelling.) AND, the following day, I had a 14-miler on deck. But a friend of mine works for the charity who was hosting the race, Concern Worldwide, and after she mentioned the race to me, I really wanted to see where my fitness was at. So I showed up.

I didn’t have a goal time or a race strategy. (I didn’t even tell my coach Rebekah Stowe I was racing it was so last minute.) But on my subway ride up to Central Park, I wrote in my training journal, “I don’t know if I’m going to race or run the 4 miles. I’m going to warm up, take off strong and then listen to my body.”

I talk a lot about putting tools in my tool belt when it comes to running. And what I mean when I say, “Tools in my tool belt” is that over the last few years, I’ve consciously worked on strengthening my mental game when it comes to running so that I can trust my training and get into the zone during a race. The only tool I used to have for getting into the zone during a race was fun. And the second I put an ounce of pressure on myself to hit a time goal, I crashed and burned.

Which sounds silly, right? It’s an average time goal that matters only to me. I’m not chasing a pay check and there’s no way in hell I’ll ever win or come close to being an elite athlete. But chasing our personal best is something that everyone can relate to. It’s scary to put yourself out there, push yourself outside of your comfort zone in training, and then really go for it on race day. And it doesn’t matter if you have a huge online audience watching, having friends, family, or colleagues rooting for you is enough pressure to make you want to crawl into a cave and hide.

But it was during my first BQ attempt that I started learning about the zone and how it’s not something that you unlock by mistake or happenstance but a state you practice getting into. Everything from how you talk to and about yourself to how you handle speed bumps and set backs affects your ability to get into the zone.

And there’s really only one secret to mastering it: Patience.

It doesn’t matter if you’re racing a short distance or something like a marathon, staying patient is the secret to staying in the moment. Because if there’s one thing you can count on when you’re running, it’s that you’re going to spend a substantial amount of time in a hell of a lot of pain. And patience is the key to moving out of dwelling on how much everything hurts and how much longer you’re going to hurt and into gratitude, joy, control and trust.

Up until pretty recently, the only thing I’d truly mastered when it came to running and racing was catastrophizing. Everything from, “OH GOD, I TOOK OFF TOO FAST! I’M SCREWED!”, to “THERE’S NO WAY IN HELL I CAN HOLD ONTO THIS. OH GOD. OH GOD. OH GOD.”, or “I SHOULDN’T BE HURTING THIS MUCH THIS EARLY. WE JUST STARTED. FUCK. FUCK. FUCK. THIS IS GOING TO BE A BAD DAY.”. (The list of things I panic about on the run can go on forever.)

But this weekend, I wasn’t nervous before the race. I had no expectations other than to take off strong, give my best effort, and see what happens.

So I took off strong.

The course was in Central Park which always brings me back to my first traumatizing summer training to BQ where I had to start to rumble with the fact that time after time after time, I’d quit on myself whenever I started to panic. Seeing anything with a 6 or a 7 in my training plan threw me into a tailspin. I struggled so much, that I ended up having a few different panic attacks on a series of hills in Central Park we New Yorkers call the three sisters. And going over the three sisters during the 4-miler during the race, I couldn’t help but smile when I realized that though I was a little nervous about my pace, I felt like I was in control.

Somewhere before mile 2, my friend Whitney who was just out for a run pulled up beside me. A giant smile lit up my face and she asked me what I was doing. I laughed and told her I was running a race and I was a little nervous I took off too fast. She told me I looked really strong and not to worry about it. We talked for a few seconds and then she told me to have fun and took off.

It was just the reminder I needed that though I was hurting (it’s a race. You’re supposed to hurt.), I was allowed to feel strong.

Whenever I caught myself thinking ahead, I was immediately able to shake it off. From focusing on shorter segments to run to working with my mantras and throwing in a tiny surge whenever I felt my pace waver, I watched myself handle every speed bump patiently instead of blowing up in a panicked mess.

Patience.

Patience.

Patience.

*Photos by Zach Hetrick

It’s so hard to stay patient during a race when you feel like you should be doing anything but being patient. IT’S A RACE! TENSIONS ARE HIGH! Most of us still struggle to pace ourselves and successfully running negative splits. RACING CAN BE STRESSFUL! But what I’ve come to learn is that patience is the secret to attacking whenever you can and working through the tougher moments when running strong or staying on pace feels infinitely harder than it should.

Knowing that every step is a new opportunity to run your personal best is so much easier said than done.

I say this all the time but your personal best isn’t about a time. It’s about finishing knowing that you gave your personal best effort every single step of the way. Sometimes, we get both a personal best and a personal record. But more often than not, executing a race mentally is a bigger win than getting the time we’ve been chasing.

Don’t get me wrong, I love chasing a time goal. I’ve been chasing a time goal for three years now and I’m still just as inspired by it today as I was back in 2016. But a time goal is an outcome goal and if you put all your eggs in the outcome goal basket, you’re setting yourself up for burnout and some serious heartaches. Running is about the process and the journey. All the lessons you learn from the breakthroughs, plateaus, and set backs.

The last four months have been some of the toughest I’ve ever pushed through. I don’t know what it was about my running but it took so long for my fitness to show up. I felt like I was slogging through shitty run after shitty run. My attitude was there and I knew that all the average, forgetful, and tough days would payoff in a huge breakthrough, but had I not been focusing on the journey, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have made it to this 4-miler.

Regardless of what goal you’re chasing, from your first race, making running a habit, or chasing a time goal that feels impossible, I hope you pour yourself into everything that happens from now until you make your impossible possible because it’s not about race day. It’s about everything that happens in between.

And most importantly, it doesn’t matter what your athletic level is, anyone can become a strong AF runner if you’re willing to put in the mental work.

Stay patient. Stay persistent. And always give your personal best.